In search of a finishing kick
Ireland's four starters will be marked men in the year's last Major at Atlanta Athletic Club, says Dermot Gilleece
In the best theatrical tradition, a suitably dispiriting dress rehearsal at Killarney should leave Ireland's newly formed quartet of Major champions set fair for their first top assignment later this week. The target will be the pursuit of further glory in the 93rd PGA Championship on the extensively refurbished Highlands Course at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Reflecting the marvellous current strength of the Irish game, all four are realistic contenders, with Rory McIlroy just that little bit ahead of the rest, simply because of the huge talent which brought him a US Open title two months ago. Either way, performances in the three Majors so far this year will make it seem decidedly odd if the Irish aren't in contention or actually extending their victory haul.
But, of course, things are never quite that simple. And a player eminently capable of restoring the old order has been looking ominously comfortable, physically and competitively, on his comeback in the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone. The Tiger Woods factor is back in the game.
Meanwhile, by the time the trophy has been presented next Sunday evening, it is expected that McIlroy will have officially decided to return to the US PGA Tour as a member for 2012. Among other things, he has talked about enjoying American conditions, though the break with his long-time girlfriend Holly Sweeney is also a consideration.
In this context, McIlroy's strongest performances this season tell an interesting tale. They have all come in warm, American-style conditions: Abu Dhabi (2), Dubai (T10), Doral (T10), US Masters (T15), Maybank Malaysian (3), Memorial (5), Volvo World Match Play, Spain (T9), US Open (1). Yet it is equally interesting that a suggested move to Florida would mean turning his back on the finest, privately-owned practice facility in Ireland in the grounds of his south Belfast home.
Only last Monday, before departing the following morning to the US, he was there for five hours "doing a lot of hard work" with his coach Michael Bannon. And his buoyant mood owed much to one of the few really good things to come out of a disappointing Irish Open display. It concerned his final approach-shot -- a superbly-struck six-iron fade, which was held onto a right-to-left wind to send the ball over the 18th pin, tucked on the right side of the green.
"I will take a lot of confidence from hitting that shot the way I saw it," he said. "I believe I've got to the point now where I'm swinging the way I want to. My ball flight is very neutral. I can hit it right-to-left, I can hit it left-to-right, I can hit it high, I can hit it low. There's nothing really that I feel I need to add to my game. It's just a matter of doing it on a consistent basis."
Though he remains extremely close to McIlroy, Bannon will not be at the PGA. Still, if a problem arises, they are only a phonecall apart. "I saw that six-iron at Killarney on TV and it was one of the first things Rory mentioned when we got together on Monday," said the coach. "At his level, you need to be a shotmaker with confidence in your ability to hit the ball whatever way you see the shot. A lot of good players can see shots but they can't always play them. That six-iron proved Rory's in really good shape right now.
"This year's Masters and US Open was the best I've seen Rory swing the club. For me, the big improvement came when we changed his swing a wee bit in Abu Dhabi at the start of the year. We ironed out a few things and he proceeded to finish second there. Then, except for a few holes, he went on to play brilliantly in the Masters. And he obviously played great in the US Open and in Malaysia. So his level of consistency went higher up the scale than it had been."
But what of this neutral ball-flight the player talked of? Conscious of not becoming too technical, Bannon replied: "For a player to be able to play right-to-left, left-to-right or low or high, what we try to do is get him in a more neutral position; right on the swing plane if you like. Then he can move the ball about a bit more comfortably. So we keep an eye on positions. It's really about being on plane on the way down in the golf swing. In that respect, I'm a second pair of eyes for Rory."
The perception that every Major performance is etched deeply into a player's consciousness took a bit of a jolt when I spoke to Darren Clarke and Pádraig Harrington about the upcoming challenge. Almost total amnesia of having played Atlanta Athletic Club in the 2001 PGA, however, can be explained by the fact that both of them missed the cut.
"I remember Atlanta for David Toms having a hole in one on the 15th with a rescue or something (five-wood) and then going on to win," said Clarke. In fact, Toms made history in the third round by scoring the longest ace in a Major championship when his trusty wood found the target on the 243-yard 15th which, incidentally, has now been extended to 260 yards. As for Harrington: "I've never played Atlanta." In fact, he carded very forgettable rounds of 75 and 74 to be eight strokes outside the cut.
After his game reached yet another low point at Killarney, culminating in a split from coach Bob Torrance, it's easy to think of the last three years as largely a competitive wasteland for the Dubliner since the third of his Major wins in the 2008 PGA at Oakland Hills.
Which proves we can all have our moments of selective amnesia. Like in overlooking remarkable performances in August 2009 when Harrington might have won the Bridgestone Invitational and retained the PGA in successive weeks. "Paddy is a guy I admire very much," said Woods after winning the Bridgestone. "That was a lot of fun and a great battle out there and I know we will definitely do it again in the future."
He was, of course, referring to their head-to-head which looked like going to the line, but for a horrendous eight by Harrington on Firestone's treacherous, long 16th. And a week later, when a closing 70 would have earned him a play-off with YE Yang for the PGA, he had another meltdown, this time with an eight at the short eighth, where two balls found water en route to a 78.
"My win at Oakland Hills could have been just the other day," he said. "Time seems to pass so quickly that people tend not to notice the gaps there are in Major careers. Like Seve's spanned 10 years. So did Faldo's. On that basis, I still have another five years to go."
And what about Clarke who has been struggling at Firestone? "My advice to Darren as Open champion is to enjoy Atlanta. He should savour every moment and not get too worried about winning the next Major. If he's going to win more of them, he needn't be in any rush. Time is still on his side. And he should be aware that whatever happens in the PGA, it is not going to detract in any way from his Open win. He shouldn't be judged on his next performance."
For his part, Graeme McDowell is working on the money shots, the ones which the blade delivered so unerringly on the way to his US Open triumph at Pebble Beach 14 months ago.
To this end, he has turned to Kildare-born professional, Tristan Mullally, with whom he became friendly when he was attached to Royal Portrush from 1999 to 2003. "I'm trying to eliminate the lag from my takeaway which seems to have developed from putting on slower greens in Europe," he said.
"Tristan and I keep in touch. I played a lot of golf with him during my college days and I worked with him on the Tuesday of Irish Open week. While Pete Cowen remains my coach, another pair of eyes are always helpful."
As for his long game, McDowell added: "Courses like Atlanta used to be a bit of a stretch for me, especially when they're soft, but having picked up 10 yards in length over the last few years, I no longer have any problem in that area."
Germany's Martin Kaymer is defending champion this week in a predictably elite field, containing 98 of the world's top 100 players. Indeed the Irish quartet are among 31 Major champions. Yet there is still room for some sentiment. As in the appearance of 57-year-old Jerry Pate, who captured a memorable US Open there in 1976. That was when Pate, with his ball sitting obligingly on top of Bermuda rough, smashed a five-iron of 194 yards to within three feet of the 72nd pin to set up a spectacular closing birdie.
Interestingly, the sweet-swinging American made a lone appearance in the Irish Open three years later at Portmarnock where he failed utterly to cope with the high winds and missed the cut after two successive 77s.
Toms' aggregate of 265 was a record for a Major championship. Rather than reflecting enormous credit on the player, however, it was seen as indicative of a course which required serious revision. So, the Highlands stretch has been given a very significant facelift through the design skills of Rees Jones, more commonly associated with US Open venues, and is now a daunting par 70 measuring 7,467 yards.
Because of the intense heat of the southern states, Augusta National closes from May until October. By way of overcoming the problem, however, Atlanta Athletic Club have embraced a fascinating experiment in agronomy, involving the introduction of revolutionary hybrid grasses. Bent greens have been replaced by Champion Ultrawarf Bermuda while the old Bermuda tees and fairways have given way to Diamond Zoysia, described as a miracle turf.
According to leading American golf course critic, Ron Whitten of Golf Digest, this shade-tolerant grass grows so slowly that it need be mowed only twice a week. And it requires only a quarter of the fertiliser of the old fairway grass, along with just one application of herbicide per year.
The bit that caught my fancy, however, was the club's boast of a "revolutionary" plan to trim the bunker slopes using robotic mowers. Down at The Old Head of Kinsale, they call this machine a Spider, which I witnessed trimming awkward slopes as steep as 45 degrees on the ocean side of the second fairway, as its operator manoeuvred it by remote control, standing some yards away.
While we look with justifiable pride to the remarkable Irish, the world, unquestionably, will be Woods-watching in Atlanta. Two years ago, he crumbled to Yang and last year was tied a modest 28th behind Kaymer. Now, he may be about to reveal to us the route tournament golf is destined to take in the years ahead.
Sunday Indo Sport